Line of Duty: First thoughts on the Battle of Hastings

As a loyal Line of Duty fan, it pains me to say this, but… that wasn’t quite as good as seasons 2, 3, and 4.

It was still good. Just not as good.

There were still some great twists, from a show that’s always been more about the story than the characters. Corbett’s murder shocked me because I genuinely thought that he would make it to the end. They’d made such a big deal out of him, Stephen Graham’s performance had been marvellous, and although I could see no good resolution for him, I expected he’d go out in a blaze of glory. And I liked the final twist of the knife into Gill (and may have enjoyed the literal twist as much as the metaphorical one). For all the complaints that her corruption could be seen coming a mile off, and for all that you just knew someone within AC-12 was about to take a shot at her, the director did a nice bit of bait-and-switch by having two side characters with largish parts glare suspiciously from the AC-12 mezzanine. Poor Sergeant Kyle couldn’t have looked any more suspicious than when he shrugged and said all the armed security had been redeployed to other operational commitments if he’d been wearing a balaclava himself.

And the saving of the powder on the big interview scenes until episode five paid off in spades. The ones with Hastings were some of the best ever. Anna Maxwell Martin was fabulous as the waspishly polite DCS Patricia Carmichael. I’ve never seen an actor relish chewing the scenery in such a restrained way, it was magnificent. Poor Ted really did meet his match.

But therein lies the problem that bedevilled this series. The ‘Hastings-as-H,’ plot thread that began to run through it in episode two.

It just. Didn’t. Work.

Line of Duty has always operated on the principle of ‘Go big or go home,’ so there were never likely to be any half-measures in the effort to sell Super Ted as that most corrupt of corrupt police officers, but I think Jed Mercurio really misstepped this time, because he misread his fanbase. We all like Ted too much; the idea that he was actually running the network of corruption AC-12 were trying to expose was just too implausible.

No one I spoke to thought he was H. At any point.

In fact, it makes me wonder if Line of Duty’s fans are now too devoted to the show, and have slightly worked out its box of tricks. Many of us thought that the efforts to implicate Hastings pretty much proved that he couldn’t be H. Although there was a general feeling that Hastings had done something (and his possible involvement in Corbett’s death was very much left open-ended), I don’t think anyone believed that he was corrupt. It’s a credit to Mercurio that he created moments where we genuinely did believe that Hastings could be bent – I thought for a moment he was under that balaclava at the Eastfield Depot – but in the cold light of day, when we gathered at the watercoolers, nobody really believed it. It felt a little like wheels were spinning at times.

Big strategic mistakes like that can be hard to recover from. Season 2 of Broadchurch was doomed from the moment Chris Chibnall decided that he would jump the legal shark and end Joe Miller’s trial with his acquittal, and was duly pronounced dead with the words ‘Not Guilty,’ after a long and frankly painful illness lasting eight episodes. More recently, I have absolutely no idea why in God’s name Rob Williams thought it was a good idea to tell us, repeatedly, definitely not accidentally, that Craig Myers wasn’t Eddie J Turner in episode one of The Victim, only to turn around and tell us that he was in episode four. Lying to the audience, the laziest of twists, took what had been a gripping and efficiently twisty thriller and threw it straight over the shark as well. And yes, there is definitely a blog post coming about that. No matter how good some of the directing and acting was in Broadchurch and The Victim, and Broadchurch in particular was acted and produced with a capability it didn’t deserve, once those mistakes had been made, it was all for nothing. The audience had already rolled their eyes so hard they were dislocated at the incredibly obvious, or incredibly stupid, ‘twist,’ suspension of disbelief had snapped, and the final scenes just didn’t have the impact they were meant to have. Or, in the case of Broadchurch, had no impact of any kind whatsoever because they were, in themselves, stupid. Kelly MacDonald and James Harkness managed to give The Victim’s final scenes an emotional weight and punch that they really didn’t deserve.

By that logic Line of Duty’s latest series should have been about to career off a cliff as well. The fact that it didn’t, that it was still some of the best TV so far this year, was almost gravity-defying in some respects. Even with the questionable decision to try and make us fans turn on our hero whom we knew in our hearts could never be H, Line of Duty series 5 was only ‘Not that good,’ in comparison to series 1 – 4. Actually, Bodyguard was also better and I’ve a sneaking suspicion that Mercurio put more focus into that than Line of Duty in the last two years. It was, after all, the one he originally wanted to make. Line of Duty has set a consistently high bar with series 2, 3, and 4, and in a way it would have been really quite remarkable if it had managed to keep it up in series 5. Spooks, a comparable BBC show, never managed to string more than two good series together on the bounce. Prime Suspect had some big variations in quality. Every show has missteps, and this latest series was not bad by any stretch or definition.

It was good. At times great.

Just not as good, not as great as often, as we’ve come to expect.

The third episode was horribly tense. The cliffhanger to end the second episode nearly had me screaming at the TV. I gasped out loud when Hastings got that money. And although I didn’t think that he could be H, I was genuinely convinced that he’d had Corbett done in at the end of episode five. But, because I never felt that the central conceit of the series, that Hastings could be H, would be realised, I didn’t feel as invested as I had in Lindsay Denton, or Dot, or Roz Huntley. And although the decision to try and convince the audience that Hastings was H was a mistake, Mercurio avoided the trap that Broadchurch fell into of actually following through on it. He didn’t defy all laws of logic and storytelling by making Hastings H, the shark remained unjumped, and the final explanation for the evidence stacking up against Hastings was entirely satisfying.

It wasn’t quite as unexpected as Jimmy Lakewell being in on the plot to frame Michael Farmer in series 4, or Denton’s involvement in the ambush in series 2, because if you didn’t accept that Hastings could be H, the only logical explanation was that the real H was trying to remove the threat he posed, and Gill Biggeloe clearly had to be in on it. That made it predictable in a way that Lindsay Denton’s actions or Dot’s demise hadn’t been.

The finale was excellent. It was almost heartbreaking to watch Carmichael tear our hero down piece by piece. Ted’s confession to looking at porn was as low as the series has ever taken one of its characters and was hard to listen to. Kate won the series with her ‘Now stop making a tit of yourself and piss off.’ And Kate won the series again by spotting what Carmichael had missed – that Corbett, a man whose mother had been murdered by the IRA just hours after passing information on them to Hastings, could not possibly have ended up mounting an undercover operation aimed him at by coincidence. Hastings called it himself – she was ambitious, saw him as a big scalp, and didn’t even examine a glaring problem with Operation Pear Tree.

More like Operation Pear Shaped anyway.

The expectation subversion with Gill’s own Urgent Exit Required was sparkling. It primed us for a big shootout, and after seeing him standing on the Mezzanine of Suspicion I think just about everyone expected Kyle to turn his G-36 on Steve and Kate. The attempted murder of Gill by corrupt Sergeant Tranter spun this on its head.

Although with all that said, Central Police seriously needs to tighten up its firearms policy. At the moment it seems to hand them out like smarties. I’d probably get one if I asked nicely enough.

I thought the sledging for the repeated use of acronyms was a bit unfair, actually extremely unfair, but possibly a bit inevitable when AC-12 got promoted to BBC 1. As a BBC 2 cult hit, its fans loved the way it tried to be and sound authentic – police officers who actually spoke like police officers, used correct police terminology, and expected us to keep up. On BBC 1, the audience is wider, and it seems that some of them don’t want to do the work and want Line of Duty to dumb itself down. Mercurio’s rightly resisted the temptation to do that. Real police officers do use the terms OCG, AFO, ARV, TFC, SFC, and to be fair the full meanings – Organised Crime Group, Authorised Firearms Officer, Armed Response Vehicle, Tactical Firearms Commander, Strategic Firearms Commander – were said enough times on screen. Line of Duty expects its audience to pay attention. If you want to half watch it whilst checking Twitter or playing Candy Crush then it really isn’t for you. It’s intended to be a realistic look at a complicated job. That includes reflecting how the people doing it speak.

And, ok, we definitely have to address this… Dot’s dying declaration. I think most people had started to realise that H probably didn’t refer to someone’s surname, although my own theory that he meant G for Gill was also only half right, and that was by accident. But… ‘It was Morse code! He was trying to tell us there were four Dots!’ seemed a little bit, well, Nancy Drew. Dying Dot was remarkably put together to think of H in Morse code as his way of telling Kate that there were four high-ranking police officials in league with the Balaclava Men. I wouldn’t have known that H is four Dots in Morse code. Coordinating the two blinks on H, and the squeezing my hand four times as well, whilst losing consciousness, I really don’t think I’d’ve managed. It stretched credibility a bit.

And it wasn’t really necessary. Dot could have just held four fingers out. That would have been easier for a dying man, and required less tortuous leaps of logic from Steve. The last H standing is clearly the biggest of the bunch – with the pull to have Dot extracted and Hilton and Gill killed. Hilton and Gill seem to have been less important than Dot, so there’s a degree of hierarchy among the Hs. But Dot, and Mercurio, could have found a less convoluted way of telling us.

So, that was a bit silly. But, starting to seep through this series, has been something that I’ve felt previous ones have lacked – the desire of the higher echelons of the police service to cover up, rather than expose, corruption. We saw it with ACC Hilton in series 4, but it’s become far more explicit in series 5 with DSI Powell and DCC Wise trying to redirect Operation Pear Shaped onto smaller fry. Gill herself smugly retorted that she was just one rotten apple when cornered by Kate and Steve, and we ended with Wise on the steps of Force HQ confirming that there was no widespread corruption in Central Police even as AC-12 were learning the exact opposite. Even as Ryan, a double cop-killer, was marching around Police College.

Even as questions swirled around just exactly how Lisa had known that there was a rat in her firm. It could have been a coincidence. She suspected a rat when she learnt that AC-12 had raided the print shop, long before Hastings visited Lee Banks, and from her own explanation realised it had to be John when their supposed meeting with H at the Palisades shopping centre was compromised. But Hastings had no adequate explanation for his visit to Lee Banks in prison, or what they’d said to each other. Mercurio seemed to be leaving that open-ended. Hastings could have told Banks that there was a rat, but Lisa could have worked it out herself and lied about the tipoff to make sure that the OCG could keep using Terry’s flat to store evidence.

Carmichael was convinced Hastings had betrayed Corbett, and ultimately we don’t know. What does seem certain is that AC-12 will meet a lot of resistance from DCC Wise as it tries to uncover just how far the rot has spread inside Central Police.

I feel like we’re nicely set for series 6.

Series 5’s been good. I don’t think it touched the heights of 2, 3, and 4, because it overcommitted to a plot conceit that its audience would never be convinced by, spent too much time trying to sell us something that we just weren’t buying. But the resolution of it satisfied the story, our expectations, and our emotions, and leaves us set nicely for series 6. And, let’s be honest. Does anyone expect that the rest of the year will produce anything as good, or better?

 

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